Sayed Darwish

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Sayed Darwish
السيد درويش البحر
Background information
Also known asThe Father of Modern Arab Music [1]
Father of Egyptian Popular Music
Born(1892-03-17)17 March 1892
Origin Alexandria, Egypt
Died15 September 1923(1923-09-15) (aged 31)
Alexandria, Egypt
GenresEgyptian music
Occupation(s)Singer, songwriter, record producer, musician
InstrumentsVocals, oud

Sayed Darwish (Arabic : سيد درويش, IPA:  [ˈsæjjed dæɾˈwiːʃ] ; 17 March 1892 – 15 September 1923) was an Egyptian singer and composer who was considered the father of Egyptian popular music and one of Egypt's greatest musicians and its single greatest composer. Darwish died of a heart attack in Alexandria on 15 September 1923, aged 31. He is still regarded as a noble and adored figure in Egyptian history.


Early life

Sayed Darwish was born in Kôm el-Dikka Alexandria on 17 March 1892. During his childhood his family could not afford to pay for his education, so he was sent to a religious school where he mastered the recitation of the Quran, studying under Muhammad Salamah. After graduating from the religious school and gaining the title Sheikh Sayyed Darwish, he studied for two years at al-Azhar, one of the most renowned religious universities in the world. He left his studies to devote his life to music composition and singing, then entered a music school where his music teacher, Sami Efendi, admired his talents and encouraged Darwish to press onward in the music field.

Darwish at that time was also trained to be a munshid (cantor). He worked as a bricklayer in order to support his family, and it so happened that the manager of a theatrical troupe, the Syrian Attalah Brothers, overheard him singing for his fellows and hired him on the spot. While touring in Syria, he had the opportunity to gain a musical education, short of finding success. He returned to Egypt before the start of the Great War, and won limited recognition by singing in the cafés and on various stages while he learned repertoire of the great composers of the 19th century, to which he added ʾadwār (musical modes) and muwashshaḥāt (Arabic poetic-form compositions) of his own. In spite of the cleverness of his compositions, he wasn't to find public acclaim, disadvantaged by his mediocre stage presence in comparison with such stars of his time as Sâlih 'Abd al-Hayy or Zakî Murâd. [2]


After too many failures in singing cafés, in 1918 he decided to follow the path of Shaykh Salama Higâzî, the pioneer of Arabic lyric theater (AAA 085) and launched into an operatic career. He settled in Cairo and got acquainted with the main companies, particularly Nagîb al-Rîhanî's (1891–1949), for whom he composed seven operettas. This gifted comedian had invented, with the playwright and poet Badî' Khayrî, the laughable character of Kish Kish Bey, a rich provincial mayor squandering his fortune in Cairo with ill-reputed women... The apparition of social matters and the allusions to the political situation of colonial Egypt (the 1919 "revolution") were to boost the success of the trio's operettas, such as "al-'Ashara al-Tayyiba" (The Ten of Diamonds, 1920) a nationalistic adaptation of 'Blubeard".

Sayyid also worked for Rihânî's rival troupe, 'Alî al-Kassâr's, and eventually collaborated with the Queen of Stages, singer and actress Munîra al-Mahdiyya (1884–1965), for whom he composed comic operettas such as "kullaha yawmayn" ("All of two days", 1920) and started an opera, "Cleopatra and Mark Anthony", which was to be played in 1927 with Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahhâb in the leading role. In the early twenties, all the companies sought his help. He decided to start his own company, acting at last on stage in a lead part. [3] His two creations ("Shahrazâd' and "al-Barûka", 1921) weren't as successful as planned, and he was again forced to compose for other companies from 1922 until his premature death on 15 September 1923.

Darwîsh's stage production is often clearly westernized: the traditional takht is replaced by a European ensemble, conducted by il Signore Casio, Darwish's maestro. Most of his operetta tunes use musical modes compatible with the piano, even if some vocal sections use other intervals, and the singing techniques employed in those compositions reveal a fascination for Italian opera, naively imitated in a cascade of oriental melismas. The light ditties of the comic plays are, from the modern point of view, much more interesting than the great opera-style arias. A number of those light melodies originally composed for al-Rihânî or al-Kassâr are now part of the Egyptian folklore. Such songs as "Salma ya Salâma, "Zurûni koll-e sana marra or EI helwa di qâmet te'gen" are known by all Middle-Easterners and have been sung by modern singers, as the Lebanese Fayrûz or Syrian Sabâh Fakhrî, in reorchestrated versions. Aside from this light production, Sayyid Darwîsh didn't neglect the learned repertoire, he composed about twenty muwashshahât, often played by modern conservatories and sung by Fayrûz. But his major contribution to the turn-of-the-century learned music is better understood through the ten adwâr (long metric composition in colloquial Arabic) he composed. [4]

Whereas in the traditional aesthetics defined in the second part of the 19th century, the dôr was built as a semi-composition, a canvas upon which a creative interpreter had to develop a personal rendition, Darwish was the first Egyptian composer to reduce drastically the extemporizing task left to the singer and the instrumental cast. Even the "ahât", this traditionally improvized section of sighs, were composed by Darwîsh in an interesting attempt of figuralism. Anecdotic arpeggios and chromaticism were for his contemporaries a token of modernism, but could be more severely judged nowadays.

Sayyid Darwish was personally recorded by three companies: Mechian, a small local record company founded by an Armenian immigrant, which engraved the Shaykh's voice between 1914 and 1920; Odeon, the German company, which recorded extensively his light theatrical repertoire in 1922; Baidaphon, which recorded three adwâr around 1922. His works sung by other voices are to be found on numerous records made by all the companies operating in early 20th-century Egypt.

Musical style

Darwish believed that genuine art must be derived from people's aspirations and feelings. In his music and songs, he truly expressed the yearnings and moods of the masses, as well as recording the events that took place during his lifetime. He dealt with the aroused national feeling against the British occupiers, the passion of the people, and social justice, and he often criticized the negative aspects of Egyptian society.

His works, blending Western instruments and harmony with classical Arab forms and Egyptian folklore, gained immense popularity due to their social and patriotic subjects. Darwish's many nationalistic melodies reflect his close ties to the national leaders who were guiding the struggle against the British occupiers. His music and songs knew no class and were enjoyed by both the poor and the affluent.

In his musical plays, catchy music and popular themes were combined in an attractive way. To some extent, Darwish liberated Arab music from its classical style, modernizing it and opening the door for future development.

Besides composing 260 songs, he wrote 26 operettas, replacing the slow, repetitive, and ornamented old style of classical Arab music with a new light and expressive flair. Some of Darwish's most popular works in this field were El Ashara'l Tayyiba, Shahrazad, and El-Barooka . These operettas, like Darwish's other compositions, were strongly reminiscent of Egyptian folk music and gained great popularity due to their social and patriotic themes.

Even though Darwish became a master of the new theater music, he remained an authority on the old forms. He composed 10 dawr and 21 muwashshat which became classics in the world of Arab music. His composition "Bilaadi! Bilaadi!" (My Country! My Country!), that became Egypt's national anthem, and many of his other works are as popular today as when he was alive. Sayyid Darwish was highly influenced by his teacher, the great Iraqi musician and singer Othman Al-Mosuli (1854–1923), and it has been established that his most famous songs "Zuruni kul Sana Marra", "Talaat Ya Mahla Noura" and "Albint Alshalabiya" among many others were adaptations from well known works of Othman Al-Musoli's, who is considered to be the greatest musician and singer in the modern Middle East. This has cast serious doubt about "Biladi Biladi" in terms of origin as it has been suggested that it was also composed by Othman. It is well known that Sayyiod Darwish tried his best to show that everything he played was the result of his own creativity and never admitted to plagiarism.


Sayed Darwish died on 10 September 1923 at the age of 31. The cause of his death is still unknown. Some say he was poisoned and died from cardiac arrest. He now rests in the "Garden of the Immortals" in Alexandria. [5]


At the age of 30, Darwish was hailed as the father of the new Egyptian music and the hero of the renaissance of Arab music. He is still very much alive in his works. His belief that music was not merely for entertainment but an expression of human aspiration imparted meaning to life. [6] He is a legendary composer remembered in street names, statues, a commemorative stamp, an Opera house, and a feature film. He dedicated his melodies to the Egyptian and pan-Arab struggle and, in the process, enriched Arab music in its entirety.

The Palestinian singer and musicologist, Reem Kelani, examined the role of Sayyid Darwish and his songs in her programme for BBC Radio Four entitled "Songs for Tahrir" about her experiences of music in the uprising in Egypt in 2011. [7]


Egyptian national anthem

Arabic: بلادى بلادى بلادى
English: My country, my country, my country
Bilady, Bilady, Bilady

National anthem of Flag of Egypt.svg  Egypt
LyricsMohammad Younis-al Qadi, 1892
MusicSayed Darwish, 1923
1952 (unofficially)
1979 (officially)

Sayed Darwish put music to the Egyptian national anthem, Bilady, Bilady, Bilady , the words of which were adapted from a famous speech by Mustafa Kamil.

Coincidentally, on the day of his death, the national Egyptian leader Saad Zaghloul returned from exile; the Egyptians sang Darwish's new song "Mesrona watanna Saaduha Amalna", another national song by Sayed Darwish that was attributed to "Saad" and made especially to celebrate his return.

Other compositions

A selective number of compositions include:

Arrangements of his compositions for classical string orchestra by (Amir Awad)


The Sayyid Darwish Theatre was named in his honor.

See also

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